Saturday, May 19, 2012

Contemporary Art – Exclusive or Inclusive? Discuss.

Is it your opinion that “Contemporary Art Excludes the 99 Percent”? This question was the topic of debate at a sold-out event at this year’s Hong Kong International Art Fair. The Fair represents 266 galleries from 38 countries, and is the largest forum of its kind in Asia. The discussion (hosted by a debate-event organization called Intelligence Squared) featured four distinguished artists and art critics split on two sides of the issue of whether contemporary art is increasingly aimed at rich people at the expense of the teeming masses yearning to be inspired (or puzzled).

Let’s set aside the fact that tickets to this event cost almost US$40 per person to attend. That’s not cheap. In the modern media world, US$40 buys a lot of entertainment – 40 song downloads on iTunes, 4 movies with vertigo-inducing 3-D glasses, 3 1/2 music CDs for those not tech-savvy enough to find free pirated downloads, and an infinite number of free e-books. So, anyone willing to pay US$40 to participate in a live discussion forum on the snobbery of modern art defines themselves, don’t you think? And sure enough, the room was filled with men in suits and women in designer dresses. The gift bags for each guest included sample bottles of Aesop’s Gentle Scalp Cleansing Shampoo and Revitalising Hair Sealing Conditioner, and an expensive-looking guide to a New York art gallery.

Before the debate began, the polled audience was fairly evenly split in responding “yay” or “nay” to the topic question, with 20% taking the undecided “Hmm” view. I initially took the undecided position. The debate comprised 10 minute speeches by each of the four panelists, followed by Q&A from the audience.

Ben Lewis – a film maker and art critic who defended the “Yay” side to the question – talked about how a “utopian dream world of art” had been undermined by a “harsh reality.” The social system of today’s art world “embodies” the exclusion of others, and exudes a “We’ve got the lolli” attitude. His talk, though a bit erudite, nevertheless hit some strong tonal notes.

Joseph Kosuth – an artist who took the opposite “Nay” view – discussed how art has grown to eclipse both science and philosophy – perhaps even religion - as the dominant participatory medium of expression and faith. He argued that the art market needs to be differentiated from art itself and its history. In his view, the market is like business and politics – they are short term phenomena. Art defines culture in the longer term perspective.

Paul Chan – a New York-based artist on the “Yay” side of the fence – gave an eloquent speech that was both personal and ethereal. He talked about how the act of exclusion can make the familiar into something foreign. Art is defined socially, in his view, and it is now “luxurious.” Case in point – “I was flown here from New York – business class, something that hasn’t happened to me in, like, 600 years.” 99% of the people don’t have time to include art in their lives - they are too busy with simple day-to-day existence. He then concluded with a very thought-provoking tangent – Truly great art excludes 100% of the people. Greatness feels “other-worldly," and is new and unfamiliar to just about everyone, regardless of who owns it or where it is viewed. Paul was brilliant.

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor – a museum director arguing the “Nay” perspective – took a very reasoned, measured approach. She said that, too often, it is not the art but the context for displaying art – i.e. the galleries - that create exclusionary bias. Galleries have always had a vested interest in keeping art exclusive, since that scarcity drives up prices. Initially, public display spaces perpetuated that stand-offish snobbery by showing art in hushed white-walled rooms. But public art spaces are changing to be more inclusive and accessible to a broader audience.

An entertaining Q&A session followed the speeches and covered the difference between contemporary art and popular culture (A: art is for producing ideas, pop culture is the consumption of ideas), whether art should be sold on an exchange and whether art reality shows were a good or bad thing (A: neither, just boring).

The audience poll at the end of the evening yielded an interesting result – those who voted for “yay, contemporary art does exclude the 99%” won by a 2:1 margin over the “nays.” Perhaps it was the politically-correct vote. Perhaps it was Paul Chan’s charm. Or perhaps people simply looked around the room, took stock of who was attending, and had self-reflective, know-thyself moments.

As for me, I voted with the “nays.” Like many people, I am not happy to see the top end pricing of every market being driven sky-high by increasing wealth and wealth disparity. It is not heartening to see more and more of the world’s treasures being held by a privileged few. But I am also a realist, and I believe in capitalism as the least-worst foundation for material interaction between human beings. All ideas, other than a utopian few such as universal love and world peace, have a price. Generally, the greater the idea, the more value it has. If someone wants to own a particular idea and is willing to pay a fair price for it, then it should be their right, so long as they don’t abuse that right. And if high prices motivate some artists to create more pieces, then where is the loss in that? Contemporary art at its best is about fresh ideas that challenge convention and spur other ideas. That makes it a very powerful medium. Luckily, contemporary art has a certain transparency, particularly in the age of the internet and high resolution mobile devices. If a Picasso or Damien Hirst piece sells for $80 million, then worldwide attention is called to it and images of it are easily called up for viewing, for free. Or very often, pieces like it show up in public galleries or art shows that are accessible to the general public. A person does not need to be in the same room as an original piece of art to be inspired or moved by it. Great art transcends its context. The only great shame is if art is hidden away and not available for access at all.

Such is my opinion, at least. That being rendered, I will shut down my lap top and let you get on with your day. Thanks very much for reading. Now, is anyone available to help me untie my cravat?